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Following on from Lizzie Halliwell’s MRCVS blog on getting to know the newborn foal, NEH vet Luke Berry MRCVS delves deeper into common medial ailments of the newborn foal, and what to look for.

Seeing a foaling is a truly amazing experience. But now the hard part is over, it’s time to have a look at your new foal and make sure it is both happy and healthy. Here are some tips of what to look for and how to make sure your foal is on the right track in its first few days of life.
A newborn foal should typically stand within the first one to two hours of birth and develop a good suck reflex 5 to 10 minutes after foaling with the foal ‘on suck’ within 3 hours. It is vital that the foal gets on suck as soon as possible because they are ‘immuno-naïve’ when born. This means that they don’t have immunity to pathogens such as bacteria in the environment and are thus at risk of infection.

The first milk from the mare is rich in colostrum. This thick creamy liquid, often yellowish in colour, is rich in antibodies which will help to protect the foal and give it immunity to bacteria and infection. For this reason, it is vital that the foal drinks sufficient volumes of colostrum in the first 12 of life. After a 12-18 hour period the antibodies can no longer be absorbed by the intestine, leaving the foal susceptible to infection (sepsis) which is potentially life threatening. If you don’t see the foal suck within 4-5 hours of birth, you should call your vet who can feed the mare’s colostrum via a stomach tube to ensure the foal gains this vital immunity.

Antibody levels should be tested via a blood sample taken roughly 12 hours after birth. In addition to this, it is advisable for your vet to give the foal a health check and maybe give a tetanus antitoxin. In addition to the vet check – the following are a few things to look out for.

Have a good look at your foal from a distance. It should be bright and alert, be interacting with its dam and its environment. Newborn foals should weigh in the region of 10% of their dam’s bodyweight and are expected to put on 0.5-1.5kg per day. This means a lot of feeding and foals should be sucking 5-7 times an hour. If it is happening significantly less than this you should contact your vet. Being well fed and well hydrated is vital for a healthy foal.

Moving from head to tail have a good look at your foal. Check the nostrils immediately after sucking. If milk is running from them this is something you should mention to your vet as it may be indicative of a rare congenital abnormality – a cleft palate. Look into your foal’s mouth at the gums (mucous membranes). These should appear pink and moist. Any signs of a deep red or purple colour may indicate sepsis. If your foal appears jaundiced (yellow mucous membranes) or has pale mucous membranes, this can indicate a number of serious conditions which would require urgent veterinary attention.

When looking at your foal’s eyes, make sure that both the upper and lower eyelids lie flat against the surface of the eye. Some foals are born with entropion, a condition in which the eyelid rolls in on itself. This can cause irritation and ulceration if not dealt with. Mild cases simply need to have the eyelid rolled out into its correct position but more severe cases may require a stitch placed into the foal’s eyelid to keep it in place for 24 to 48 hours.

Your foal should be able to walk around easily and stand and suck without assistance. Foals can display a wide array of orthopaedic deformities with varying severity. Newborn foals often have lax fetlocks which can be a sign of prematurity. Quite often mild and moderate deformities resolve with time but severe cases of conditions such as contracted tendons may require veterinary attention (splints/casting) and remedial farriery such as extensions or trimming.  Extreme cases where angular limb deformities are so debilitating that they affect the quality of life of the foal and restrict it from being able to move and suck and can even warrant euthanasia.

Have a look at your foal’s navel. This should be ideally dipped in an antiseptic solution (chlorhexidine/iodine) of appropriate strength to prevent infection ascending up the umbilicus. Within a day or two the naval should be dry and clean with no evidence of pus or infection. Also be aware of urine dripping from the navel. This is known as a ‘patent urachus’ and is not normal. It occurs when vessels, which normally close shortly after birth, have not closed and allow urine to pass from the bladder out through the navel. Many close on their own within in a few days but others will require veterinary attention.

Colts typically should urinate within the first 6-8 hours of life, Fillies within the first 8-11 hours.  Absence of the foal urinating should alert the observer and prompt further veterinary investigation.
Foals should pass their first faecal material known as meconium within the first 24 hours of birth. These appear as dark hard faecal pellets. Some foals struggle to pass these without assistance. A fleet enema is a worthwhile cheap and easy way of avoiding colic episodes caused by meconium. If a foal is still straining and colicking despite this, further veterinary investigation is warranted.
The most important thing to remember about foals, like all young stock, is that things can change very quickly – both for the better and worse! If you’re worried at all please don’t hesitate to call your vet to ask any questions and get any issues checked out early.

Luke Berry  BSc (Hons) BVSc MRCVS

Newmarket Equine Hospital is a trading name of Newmarket Equine Clinic Limited a company registered in England and Wales, registration number 05982720. Registered office – Newmarket Equine Hospital, Cambridge Road, Newmarket, Suffolk, CB8 0FG. VAT registration number 125340840.